WASHINGTON – Incoming Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis made his career as a provocative talk-radio personality who seemed to relish holding court on the fringes of the political mainstream.
On any given day, he could offer up inflammatory comments about slavery or assert that unmarried women just want government to pay for their birth control.
Now Lewis faces the biggest test of his political career as he must rapidly transition from radio provocateur into a full-time member of Congress.
“I’m not an expert, though I played one on the radio for 20 years,” Lewis said in the basement of the Capitol complex, fidgeting with a bottle of water. “It is humbling and sobering when all of [a] sudden you see Rep. Jason Lewis on things.”
With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, Lewis faces enormous pressure to deliver results when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3, but he must balance that against the wishes of voters in a congressional district that gave him the narrowest of wins.
“You’ve got to make law for all the people in the Second District and for the country, too,” said Lewis, Minnesota’s only new member of Congress after the election. “I think you need to take care and I’m very serious about that.”
It can be a tricky balancing act, but Lewis is being aided by another Minnesota legislator who made a similar switch.
GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, who just won a second term and also was a radio talk show host before getting elected, has served as a mentor for Lewis and the D.C.-based team he is building.
“In radio you gotta be provocative to draw an audience,” said Emmer, a Republican who also served in the state Legislature. “It is very humbling, you come here, in my case, I had legislative experience and I thought it would translate. … It did not translate. You literally have to start from square one.”
Emmer cautioned that there is a confusing array of rules for Lewis to learn as he starts to build relationships with 535 other members.
“It’s a tall order. It’s not like Minnesota,” Emmer said. “I think people on the Iron Range aren’t so much different from a southern Minnesota farmer. But when you think about Congress, it’s like you take someone from New York City on the same committee from someone in New Mexico.”
More than once, Emmer said he was humbled by the procedures and rules on Capitol Hill. He described the voting bells going off, and him not knowing what they meant or what the votes were. He said it was like changing careers.
Emmer said it took until late February after he was first elected for the “ball to start to slow down.” And it took another month “before I was starting to make contact with that ball.”
Like many other members, Emmer slept in his office for two years while in Washington to save money in a city where rents soar over $2,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments. He boarded airplanes as soon as final votes were made on Thursdays or Fridays. Once back home, Emmer usually held a town hall or two each month to stay in touch with Sixth Congressional District residents.
As he gets more settled in Washington, Emmer said the communication back home is crucial to bridging the divide between the sometimes overwhelming political spinning in D.C. and the real lives and struggles of voters back home.
Rep. John Kline, a Republican who served 14 years in the Second Congressional District before retiring this year, said many freshmen make the mistake of getting swept up in the swirl of Capitol Hill politics, parties and political talking points.
He encouraged Lewis to keep in touch with people back home, to build a strong Minnesota-based staff and to help constituents with whatever they need.
“He has got to be paying attention,” Kline said. “Constituent services, sending out e-mails, doing telephone town halls, getting around.”
Kline said those steps will help insulate him from getting too ensnared in the Washington culture.
“If he does it right, he’ll stay in touch with constituents and he’ll know what they’re saying, not what he is being told they are saying,” Kline said. “It will enable him to do a better job out here.”
Lewis says he’s already had some challenging moments, including getting lost at the U.S. Capitol while coming back from the restroom and having to ask a tour guide to help him.
He spent two weeks of freshman orientation interviewing people to build out a staff and learning the rules. He says he isn’t sure whether he will rent or buy a place to live near the Capitol.
But Lewis said he is energized by this new challenge and the possibilities that come with one-party control in Washington.
“I can’t tell you how many Republicans I’ve heard from who have been here for a while who say you have no idea how lucky you are coming up in this cycle,” he said, referring to the one-party government starting in January with the GOP controlling both chambers as well as a Republican in the White House. “We’re going to get a chance to create law.”